The government is pinning its hopes on a nuclear renaissance to meet Britain's climate change goals. Planning procedures are being eased and hidden subsidies offered. But the policy is based on a misunderstanding of nuclear power's lousy economics, and will failby Tom Burke / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
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Gordon Brown does not dither about nuclear power. His commitment to it is emphatic, advancing since the start of the year from a policy of simply replacing Britain’s existing nuclear capacity to one of doubling it, and now to there being no upper limit to its share of electricity generation. Brown has undertaken a radical reform of the nuclear regulatory and planning processes, aimed at clearing the path for new reactors. It is therefore particularly poignant that this is a policy doomed to fail.
Energy prices are rising, the climate is changing and power stations are closing—so we need more nuclear power. So runs the overwhelming volume of argument in the media. But what is missing is any critical examination of the case that underpins these dire warnings from ministers and utility industry nabobs about the lights going out. The lights are not going to go out. The government’s nuclear policy will fail. And all that will really matter is that we will have lost precious time in switching to a more climate-friendly method of electricity generation.
We live, these days, in what Eric Hobsbawm calls a “permanent present.” Even recent history is quickly forgotten. Somewhere in my personal archive are the minutes of a cabinet meeting held in October 1979, which arrived on my desk at Friends of the Earth in a proverbial brown envelope. They recorded the decision of Margaret Thatcher’s newly elected government to build ten nuclear reactors. The arguments were familiar. Oil prices were rising, An energy gap was imminent. Without a crash programme of nuclear reactors we would freeze in the dark. Sixteen years later, just one reactor had been built, at Sizewell in Suffolk. It cost more than double the original estimate. No one froze in the dark.
The story of British nuclear power
There is nothing in the history of nuclear power in Britain to inspire confidence. Most of our 19 reactors, which together have the capacity to generate 12,000 megawatts (MW), are of a design unique to Britain. These Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs) were in 1974 described by Arthur Hawkins, chairman of the then-nationalised industry that placed the orders, as “a catastrophe.” Today, four are not working, reducing from 20 to 15 per cent the share of electricity that is produced by nuclear.
A popular mythology has developed that…